Housing crisis: Locals describe desperate living conditions in Far North's Utakura Valley

While the housing crisis dominates national news headlines, whanau in the Far North are living in desperate conditions as a result of decades of neglect and inequality.

Remana Matiu has lived in a whare in the Northland settlement of Utakura Valley for almost 40 years.

It's startling to find out that he only recently had running water installed in his home, but despite the basic conditions he lives in, Matiu feels blessed.

"I consider myself quite lucky to have what I've got, whereas some haven't got nothing. They haven't got any whenua," Matiu says.

The 60-year-old also has multiple health issues to contend with.

"Our health is not too flash. I have diabetes, I also have kidney failure. It doesn't make it easy when our conditions of our whare is like how it is," he says.

Former New Zealand First MP Jenny Marcroft's father was born in Utakura Valley, and Matiu is her cousin. 

"Coming into such close contact to someone who is a relation, someone that you care about, to see their situation is just heartbreaking," Marcroft says.

"When I came to this valley and reconnected with not just my whakapapa, but the place where my father was born, and that spiritual connection I have with it."

In 2017, Marcroft entered Parliament to speak out about the conditions her whanau were living in. It caught the attention of the Minister of Māori Development, Nanaia Mahuta, who asked for a report on how to improve the housing and wellbeing for whanau in Utakura Valley.

Utakura resident Alva Pomare was tasked with the job to write a report, documenting the dire conditions whanau were living in. Her report makes for confronting reading.

"The needs were high and they were vast. I know I cried for the first day. You can't be telling me that story? But it did tell me that story, so I thought, 'what do we do about this?'" says Pomare.

The majority of properties in the rohe are in desperate need of repair.

"There are some homes that don't have bathrooms. You sit in a home that's absolutely freezing and you put on the heater, it goes right out the back. In the front door and out the back door," she adds.

Housing crisis: Locals describe desperate living conditions in Far North's Utakura Valley
Photo credit: The Hui

Unbelievably, whanau there pay almost the same council rates as Kerikeri, even though that's a large town, and despite the Valley's water supply described as being in a similar condition to third world living standards.

Buying water to fill tanks is beyond the means of most whanau here.

"The water is really critical - safe, clean, drinking water is an absolute human right. There is a huge inequity here and that inequity is alive and well because we look like this," she says.

It was estimated in 2019 that the cost to bring all houses in a poor or serious condition in Northland to an 'as new' condition, was around $205 million, but two years on things have worsened.

Since COVID-19, many whanau have moved back to Utakura and live in makeshift shelters like tents and tarpaulins.

"I really can't see how coming home and having to put up a tent is OK anymore when we're in 2021," Pomare says.

Finally, there's been some progress with $1 million given to repair whare in the region. While it's a move in the right direction, many whanau don't qualify.

"Unless another minister takes us seriously, we're going to stay where we are, and for me, that's not good enough for another set of generations," Pomare says.

While thankful some things are happening, Pomare says the Valley families can't wait any longer.